Renaissance Ways of Seeing / Ways of Seeing the Renaissance

This post has been contributed by Louise Horton of the School of Arts’ Department of English and Humanities

How did people see in the Renaissance? From religious art in Alpine chapels to invisible men on the London stage, Wednesday’s panel session at Birkbeck Arts Week offered four ways of seeing in the Renaissance that challenged us to look again at how we see and understand the period.

  • Envisage a Mary Magdalene clothed in liturgical green rather than as a scarlet harlot.
  • Picture the angels John Dee thought could be seen in a crystal ball.
  • Imagine what buying ‘a robe for to goo invisibell’ entailed, and wonder whether we see nature or convention in great works of Renaissance art.

The panel showed us ways to do just that and asked do we have to see to believe? Or do we need to believe to see?

Birkbeck’s Joanne Anderson opening paper presented us with a new way of viewing Mary Magdalen. Focusing predominately on depictions of the Magdalen in Alpine Italy, we saw a female saint clothed in the colour of Jerusalem, replete in the shades of re-birth and shrouded in the sacred.

Coloured green this Mary is a preacher, not the scarlet woman taken in adultery. Joanne’s paper raised fascinating questions about the role of women in the early church, and how varied religious beliefs were interpreted in iconography across Renaissance Europe. What does this mean for how we interpret Mary Magdalen? What did the people of the Renaissance Alps see and believe about their green Magdalen and why was she so different to the sexualised southern Italian Mary draped in red?

The art of ‘scrying’

Stephen Clucas (Birkbeck) posed related themes about sight, conventions and belief in his talk on John Dee and the art of seeing or ‘scrying’. Dee’s active participation in the practice of crystallomancy raises many questions about Renaissance ways of seeing. Did Dee’s scryer, Edward Kelly, see and converse with angels through a crystal ball? Was Kelly a charlatan, mentally ill or taking drugs? Does it matter?

Stephen’s paper asked us to think about what Dee believed he was seeing, and how that was influenced by conventional Renaissance images of angels. Ultimately asking how does what we expect to see, through belief and convention, influence what we do see?

Sight, convention and interpretation

The final two papers continued those themes of sight, convention and interpretation by giving us ways to look at things that are simultaneously there and not there. Dr Paul Taylor (Warburg Institute) discussed the inherent tensions in imitation. Do you draw from nature or follow a schematic that represents nature? And which produces the more apparently realistic image?

Looking at Renaissance images of hair, lips and trees Paul demonstrated how the mind fills in gaps so that we see and understand things that aren’t really there. In contrast Gill Woods (Birkbeck) showed us how early modern plays told the mind not to see things that really were there. Going invisible on the Renaissance stage required imagination, cued by words, use of conventions and ultimately a leap of faith to both see and not see the entirely visible.

Ways of seeing

So to conclude, what did the session show us about Renaissance ways of seeing?

Collectively the panel gave us Renaissance religious, artistic and theatrical ways of seeing but also showed us ways of seeing the Renaissance. It seems to me that Gill’s recipe for looking beyond the visible represents how we see and interpret the Renaissance today. Our research requires us to understand convention but then to look beyond it (sometimes with a leap of faith) to see what others haven’t.

Perhaps then this makes us all scryers, looking into Renaissance objects in the hope of opening up a conversation with the past.

Listen to the Ways of Seeing Arts Week event podcast

Find out more


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.